Winner of the Pen/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection
Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry
Robin Coste Lewis’s family had survived one of the largest migrations in human history, when six million Americans fled the South, attempting to escape from white supremacy and white terrorism. The poetry Lewis joins to these vivid images from her family stands forth as an inspiring alternative to the usual ways we frame the old stories of “race” and “migration,” placing them within a much vaster span of time and history.
Twenty-five years ago, after her maternal grandmother’s death, Robin Coste Lewis discovered a stunning collection of photographs in an old suitcase under her bed, filled with everything from sepia tintypes to Technicolor Polaroids. These photographs of daily twentieth-century Black life revealed a concealed, interior history.
In what she calls “a film for the hands” and “an origin myth for the future,” Lewis reverses our expectations of both poetry and photography: “Black pages, black space, black time—the Big Black Bang.” From glamorous outings to graduations, birth announcements, baseball leagues, and back-porch delight, Lewis creates a lyrical documentary about Black intimacy. Instead of colonial nostalgia, she offers us “an exalted Black privacy.” What emerges is a dynamic reframing of what it means to be human and alive, with Blackness at its center. “I am trying / to make the gods / happy,” she writes amid these portraits of her ancestors. “I am trying to make the dead / clap and shout.”
“The exquisite To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, is a book about how the dead do not stay dead. Lewis’s elegiac and haunted volume . . . is another voyage. But the view is different, as is the destination: what Lewis is resuscitating here is a community, a family she knew or wishes she’d known.” —Hilton Als, The New Yorker
“Lewis weaves a documentary poetic work. Evident from the opening pages, one of the central interests of this exceptional collection is migration: ‘Signs and marks/ and nothing/ with which to apprentice them.// Evolution—/ the migration/ of imagination—// the image just/ illusion: a profound, prehistoric/ technology of leaving.’ The pairing of photographs and text expand existing notions of how any single artistic medium or form can capture the nuances of race, family, and history. Shining with Lewis’s trademark lyricism and fueled by resonant and inspired juxtapositions, this exquisite book makes an impact worth sharing widely and rereading.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lewis pushes the limits of language and image, composing lines alongside a cache of hundreds of photographs found under her late grandmother’s bed only days before the house was slated to be razed. A sense of loss and near-loss pervades the book. The photopoem does more than preserve—it provokes, mourns, philosophizes, yearns, and celebrates, much like the jazz of Lewis’s ancestral Louisiana. . . . Its achievement is cosmic and sonic.” —Kevin Young, The New Yorker
“To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is a hybrid text concerned with the recent past and excavating what Lewis calls deep time—millennia of Black art-making, community-building and innovation. To accomplish this excavation, Lewis arranges photos she discovered 25 years ago in a suitcase at her grandmother’s home so that they are in conversation with her own layered, lush poetry. The result is a book steeped in a particular history—Black migrants from Louisiana living in Los Angeles in the 20th century—yet buoyed by a feeling of boundlessness.” —Angela Flournoy, The Los Angeles Times
“Juxtapositions of text and photograph spark unexpected electric arcs, illuminating the photographic subjects’ inner lives . . . Lewis's language has a washed clarity. . . . At once authoritative and piercingly human, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness is an extraordinary atlas for an unmapped world.” —Sylee Gore, The Poetry Foundation